The actor’s voice, perhaps more than any other tool in their kit—more than face and physicality—provides their critical means of expression. The surprisingly high-pitched voix aigue of Marlon Brando, for instance, or the rich low-ish register of Julia Roberts’ tone that can burst into shaking laughter. Bacall’s husky hum. Bogart’s lisp.
What, then, of an actor who can no longer speak, or at least in the voice we have come to know? Such is the fate of Val Kilmer, whose treatment for cancer now requires that he cap a throat tube each time he speaks. It has deprived him of the texture he could achieve in his speaking and singing voices, but not his soul of an artist.
The sense of Kilmer as very much the playful and searching spirit he has always been comes through in the new documentary Val, directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo. The Amazon Studios title, releasing this Friday on Amazon Prime, held its Los Angeles premiere Tuesday night at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood. Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke introduced the film, with an assist from Jerry Bruckheimer, who recorded a video from Atlanta where he is in production on a movie.
“Thirty five years ago, Val Kilmer jumped off the screen as ‘Iceman’ in Top Gun,” Bruckheimer noted. “I’ve been lucky enough to follow him as both an actor and an artist. Now, he reprises his role as ‘Iceman’ in Top Gun: Maverick. But, more importantly, I’m here to share with you a moving and thrilling documentary about Val. Thank you, Val, for everything you’ve given us.”
Kilmer did not attend the LA premiere, but his children—Mercedes and Jack—were present. Jack, 26, recorded his father’s narration for the film, his voiceover sessions filmed by the directors. But Kilmer does plenty of his own speaking in Val, at home as he makes collages and scrapbooks that have long been a passion and as he travels the country attending Comic-Con and other autograph-signing events. And he is heard in video that Kilmer shot over the course of decades, chronicling his early days studying at Julliard, his rise to Hollywood stardom, his family, and health challenges.
Val is not so much a biographical documentary as an autobiographical one, as Poo explained.
“We intentionally wanted it to be impressionistic. We were kind of inspired by his artwork and his scrapbooks, so we wanted to make, in a sense, a cinematic scrapbook of his life where we could juxtapose moments in time next to each other, based on either something as simple as geography or something as simple as an action, and connect moments in time,” Poo told Deadline at the Val after-party, held at the Sunset Tower Hotel in WeHo. “He’s such a multi-dimensional person that you need to show little pieces here and there to try and put together a collage of who he is. And also the nature of a lot of the footage he shot, especially in his personal life, is very dreamy. It’s very impressionistic and so we wanted to lean into that.”
The portrait of Kilmer that emerges is of a serious actor constrained at times by a Hollywood star-making system dazzled by his exceptional good looks. Playing doomed singer-poet Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors offered a somewhat rare opportunity to take on a role worthy of his range and interests, but Kilmer hilariously reflects on how his “Method” approach to the part subjected his then wife Joanne Whalley-Kilmer to a year of living with a Morrison clone.
There is priceless footage of a young Kilmer with equally young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, the latter two baring their behinds in a rambunctious “mooning” moment. That was backstage on the Broadway production of the play Slab Boys. There are similarly candid moments with Kelly McGillis (though not featuring nudity), Kilmer’s fellow Julliard student, and later his co-star in the original Top Gun, and spirited behind the scenes antics with Rick Rossovich and Anthony Edwards and other young stars as they made the 1986 military mega-hit with Tom Cruise. Kilmer reveals the cast divided into team “Iceman” and team “Maverick” during production, the behind the scenes camaraderie splitting according to the gravitational force their characters allied with on screen.
As befitting a serious cinematic artist, Kilmer (like Johnny Depp and others of like temperament) idolized Marlon Brando. He got to work with the acting colossus in The Island of Dr. Moreau, a 1996 film that turned into a creative mess. Director John Frankenheimer took over directing duties 10 days into production, and Kilmer documented the growing tensions on set with his video camera, a habit that seemed to infuriate Frankenheimer who is heard demanding that Kilmer cease recording.
Kilmer says Frankenheimer unwisely ignored Brando’s creative input, rendering the legendary actor indifferent to the project going forward. There is a funny POV shot of Kilmer approaching the corpulent Brando reclining off set in a hammock. Val appears eager to engage with his co-star about Brando’s life, but the rotund star confines his remarks to asking Kilmer to “give him a push” so the hammock can swing his bulk. It’s a case, in a sense, of the great actor ignoring Kilmer’s implicit offer of creative exchange.
Kilmer speaks openly of his pursuit of the British actress Joanne Whalley, a romantic impulse that began with seeing her on stage in London. Their marriage spanned 1988 to 1996 (ending the year after Jack’s birth). What lasted was Kilmer’s obvious love for his children, captured in multiple tender scenes as the actor scoops his babies in his arms or entertains them—as when he created an Easter egg hunt for them on bucolic land he owned in New Mexico.
“He’s a very creative dad, in the way that he parented us,” Mercedes Kilmer told Deadline at the after-party. “It’s hard to be objective about it but as far as I can be—like you see in the film where it’s Easter and we were with [him] that year—so he’s doing an Easter egg hunt and filming it all for us. He would always make these scrapbooks when we would go away. So he’s always kind of used art—the film presents that so truthfully—how he uses art as a way of just surviving and living and connecting… He’s a very inspiring parent to have, because he’s always creating things.”
Kilmer’s long standing passion project, a film about Mark Twain, may come to pass, but perhaps not with him in the primary role because of his vocal issues. But it’s remarkable to see him transform into the writer and humorist for a one-man show Kilmer created and performed in during the years before his throat cancer battle.
Director Poo believes Kilmer largely succeeded in balancing his art with the demands of Hollywood.
“He appreciates both. I think that’s the push and pull,” Poo observed. “He was born on the stage but also it was watching movies that inspired him as a young kid. I think he went back and forth in his career and he understands the mixture of art and commerce and basically pop culture. His career is a pretty good mixture of both those things. In the end what he returned to was the stage and back to his roots a little bit. That’s why we wanted to include a pretty big section on Twain because it was a decade-long in the making masterpiece and the character that really captured his mind and imagination. So we wanted to give it its due.”
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